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ERITREA-ETHIOPIA: Ethiopia claims soldiers' remains are Eritrean

ADDIS ABABA/NAIROBI, 25 July 2003 (IRIN) - Ethiopian defence officials have insisted that the remains of 220 soldiers, handed over to Ethiopia by the UN peacekeeping force on Friday, are Eritrean troops. But Eritrea rejected the claim, saying that Ethiopia wanted to "hide its losses and casualties".

In a statement, the Ethiopian defence ministry claimed the dead soldiers, who were killed on the eastern front during the bitter two-year conflict with Eritrea, were not their troops.

The bizarre twist came hours before the UN’s Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea (UNMEE) launched 'Operation Rest In Peace'. In a ceremony at the frontier town of Bure, attended by UNMEE head Legwaila Joseph Legwaila, the bodies of the soldiers were handed over to an Ethiopian military official.

The remains have lain on the battlefield – inside the 25 km-wide Temporary Security Zone (TSZ)patrolled by the peacekeepers - since the war was officially ended by a peace accord in December

The Ethiopian statement said the country would accept the bodies for burial on "humanitarian" grounds.

“It is shame for the Eritrean regime to refuse to take the bodies of its fallen men and women of arms,” it stated. “It is even more shameful if the Asmara regime thinks that its refusal to take the bodies of its fallen soldiers would compensate for its total defeat on the battlefields."

An Ethiopian defence ministry spokeswoman told IRIN that Ethiopia would not have left its troops unburied because it "controlled the territory until the peace deal with Eritrea".

But Eritrea's acting Information Minister Ali Abdu Ahmed said his country had started the same procedure in 2000 to repatriate the bodies of Ethiopians who had fallen on the eastern front.

"In 2000, the Ethiopian regime refused to accept their bodies because they wanted to hide their losses and casualties," he told IRIN on Friday.

He said Eritrea had "returned the bodies of 220 Ethiopian soldiers" on Friday as part of its "humanitarian handling" of the issue, and had given two Ethiopian military officials permission to enter Eritrean territory for the handing-over.

UNMEE has also insisted that most of the bodies are Ethiopian. Spokeswoman Gail Bindley Taylor Sainte told a weekly press briefing on Thursday that three Ethiopian military officials had actually identified the bodies.

“They satisfied themselves that the vast majority of the bodies were in fact Ethiopians, except for seven,” she said. “Every body was photographed for forensic evidence [by UNMEE].”

UNMEE said the bodies – found inside the TSZ at Sabalita and Baala - were in “military uniform and it's not difficult to identify people from their uniforms”.

A senior Ethiopian government official reacted furiously to the claim that the soldiers are Ethiopian and accused UNMEE of “lying”.

Themes: (IRIN) Conflict



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